Lifting belts are awesome. When used properly, it feels like they turn your spine into a steel beam. With that steel spine, you can train at heavier loads much more safely which leads to more load capacity, which leads to more progressive overload, which leads to more adaptation, which leads to more progress.
In order to utilize a lifting belt, or any tool for that matter, we have to understand how it works.
Have you ever seen the “magic trick” where someone tries to squeeze an egg as hard as they can but it doesn’t break? The magic is in the curvature of the eggshell. The shape of the egg evenly distributes the pressure throughout the shell and the harder you squeeze, the more stable it becomes. It’s the same principle used in stone arch bridges.
We can take that same principle of pressure and stability and apply it to our body in preparation for lifting heavy weights. Think of your abdominal cavity as a pressurized cylinder. The top of the cylinder is your diaphragm. The bottom of the cylinder is you pelvic floor. The diaphragm is dome-shaped so when you take a breath in, the dome flattens out. When this happens, the volume of your abdominal cavity decreases and the pressure inside increases (this is Boyle’s Law). We can further increase the pressure (or decrease the volume) by contracting the muscles associated with the wall of the cylinder. With the abdominal cavity pressurized, it becomes much more stable. And this is great because along with your low back muscles, oblique muscles, and your ab muscles, your lumbar spine is also embedded in the cylinder wall.
That’s an ideal situation. But now imagine part of the cylinder wall is weakened, or has a crack in it. If we drive a lot of pressure into the cylinder and then put a heavy load on it, we risk having a blowout. In terms of lifting injuries, the blowout can manifest as a low back injury, hernia, or prolapse. To avoid this, we need to make sure the wall of our abdominal cylinder is engaged uniformly so that, just like the eggshell, the forces are distributed evenly. This definitely illustrates the importance of having a strong core because core strength fortifies the integrity of your cylinder wall.
So how does a belt relate to all of this? Well, it simply acts as something for your cylinder wall to brace against, not with. This is why we say “don’t use your lifting belt like a back brace.” It’s a core-enhancer. The benefits from your belt doesn’t come from extra padding or width in the back, it comes by uniformly distributing pressure around your core 360o around.
If you’re thinking about using or buying a belt, consider ignoring the ones with all the extra padding and thickness in the back. We just learned that the belt isn’t for supporting the low back directly, all it does is give your core something to brace against. All that extra padding just perpetuates the misconception of the belt directly supporting the low back which can lead to misuse.
If you feel like you’re having trouble breathing into and bracing against your belt, experiment by moving your belt higher. This might help for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the upper half of your abdominal cavity might not have any belt to brace against when it is worn too low. Secondly, if your belt is catching the top of your pelvis, and your pelvis (hips) is wider than your waist (belly button), your pelvis may be limiting compression for your abdominal cavity.
Speaking of compression, let’s wrap this up by talking about belt tightness. It’s not uncommon for lifters to believe that the tighter the belt is, the better. Yes, a lifting belt should be tight, but not so tight that you can’t engage and brace your core muscles against it. Wearing your belt as tight as physically possible is using the belt for support directly which completely takes out the role of the core muscles. Remember, you need to be able to breath into your belt. Keep these points in mind the next time you belt up.